Picturebooks in ELT

Passionate about picturebooks

Welcome to my blog about picturebooks in ELT.

“A picturebook is text, illustrations, total design; an item of manufacture and a commercial product; a social, cultural, historic document; and foremost, an experience for a child. As an art form it hinges on the interdependence of pictures and words, on the simultaneous display of two facing pages, and on the drama of the turning page.” (Barbara Bader 1976:1)

My intention is to discuss picturebooks, in particular the pictures in them! Why? Because, in ELT we tend to select picturebooks because they contain words our students might know. I plan to write something a couple of times a month, sharing what I discover in my readings; describe new titles I come across; discuss particular illustrators and their styles and generally promote the picture in picturebooks.

From January 2008 to December 2011 I benefitted from a PhD research grant from FCT, in Portugal.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

There was an old lady

A favourite traditional song, known and loved by most English speakers is I know an old woman who swallowed a fly.  It's said to have an unknown author, but Copyright has been given to  Alan Mills and Rose Bonne (1952). Children love anything that makes the impossible possible, and this traditional song does just that! An old lady swallows a fly, a spider, a bird, a cat, a dog, a cow and finally a horse!  

The picturebook I'm featuring today is the award winning version of this song by Simms Taback, There was an old lady who swallowed a fly.
Dust jacket front cover
The picturebook is a visual delight, the artwork is mixed media and collage on craft paper, using bright colours often against a black background, there is loads to look at and muse over.  
I have a hardback edition, not sure there is a paperback one, at least I couldn't find it.  The dust jacket cover has a hole cut into the paper where the old lady's mouth is, and we can see a fly wiggling around in the blackness. If you take the dust jacket off, there's another illustration:
Front cover
The mad looking lady is surrounded by flies, and if you look at the back covers, you will see a masterful collection of flies, all labelled and in neat rows. I was doubtful there really was such a thing as a robber fly or a sawfly - but Taback really does know his flies - they exist, though not as attractively decorated as they are in these illustrations! Before moving inside, I just want to draw your attention to the spine, which gives us the title, the author and the publisher names, all beautifully written on ripped pieces of coloured paper.
This ripped collage technique flows through the illustrations and is quite delightful. 
Front endpapers
The endpapers are covered in tiny pieces of ripped paper - they look like multicoloured snow flakes in the very dark of night. 
Copyright and title page
The copyright and title pages are a sudden contrast in bright orange, with all but one of the animals featured in the story, busily moving around in the illustrations.  The fly from the front cover has buzzed across the spread and circled the old lady, who is seen as calm and relaxed in this cameo illustration - the only time she is ever seen looking normal and old lady-like!  In the dedication to Peter Newell, Taback is openly acknowledging the contribution of illustrators at the beginning of the last century, who through their work paved the way for picturebooks as they are today.  Peter Newell's book can seen in its entirety here if you are interested. 
So let's get going with the song!
Opening 1

In wonderful picturebook fashion the spreads and illustrations follow a visual structure, which begins in opening 1, and works in sets of pairs. The verso page is a busy illustration full of all sorts of images, flowers and flying creatures all buzzing around together.  Some are painted, some are collages - this page presents the creature the old lady will swallow and to help us there's a newspaper with telling headlines "Old lady swallows fly".  The recto shows us the old lady, quite barmy, waving her umbrella and there's a smallish hole in the page, in the middle of her tummy, can you make it out?   Notice also the words, on different coloured rectangles, even the full stop is on a separate bit of paper.  "There was an old lady who swallowed a fly."

Turn the page and ...
Opening 2
We can see the fly in the lady's tummy, through the hole.  "I don't know why she swallowed a fly."   On the recto page, in that multicoloured snow we saw on the endpapers, "Perhaps she'll die" and some of the other animals in the story are commenting, all in rhyme. "I think I'll cry..."; "She gulped it out of the sky."; "But it's only a fly."; "Oh, my!" 
And if we continue this pattern is repeated with the spider and so on ...
Opening 3
Opening 4
Can you see the recipe for Spider's Soup in the verso of opening 3? Notice also how whole sentences are featured on strips of coloured paper in recto.  This is a feature which reappears on this recto page each time. 
Each time we turn the page, the hole in her tummy gets bigger as it fills up ... here she is with the spider and the fly...
Opening 5
And here with the fly, spider, bird, cat and dog ...
Opening 11
I especially like the verso in opening 11, where we are shown the cow surrounded by flowers and packets from food made with milk, and of course the newspaper headlines, "Whole cow devoured".  
Opening 12
Here's the second spread in this pair, opening 12.  Look how the parts of the song are shown on different pieces of coloured paper, and for the first time we see the horse, he's remained incognito till now! So, "There was an old lady who swallowed a horse." 
We know how the story ends don't we? 
Opening 14
"She died of course!"  And all the other animals lament, "I'm filled with remorse."; "It was the last course." etc... and right at the bottom of the recto page, a small self portrait by Taback, "Even the artist is crying ..."
Back verso
And here's the moral, "Never swallow a horse."

What a visual delight and so much there to go on and use in the classroom.  The collage illustration begs to be imitated and played with by the children.  Pages of ripped up paper, or mixing of paint and collage.  Different colours on black is visually very striking, and the children's work would make a wonderful display. 
Then there's the words and sentences on separate coloured paper, ideal for playing around with.  Words can be made into sentences, also using punctuation.  Sentences can be ordered to make the song.  A great activity for primary children who are coming to grips with reading and writing in English.  And lots of fun can be had with the rhyming words.  

And as ever youtube has the film of the book, which is really well put together. It's followed by the song, so you can sing along, though it's a bit fast! 


Zoe said...

Looks like a really fun book!

Sandie Mourão said...

Hi Zoe!

It's great fun and not very well known in the UK, as it's a US publication. The Child's Play edition illustrated Pam Adams, is nice, but doesn't have the zazz that this version brings to the song.

I'm looking forward to reading comments from colleagues who use it with their language learners.